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I.Coast rebels declare 'IB' leader

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BOUAKE, Ivory Coast (Reuters) -- A group of rebel fighters in Ivory Coast broke into a television station on Friday and declared an exiled soldier, long seen as the secret mastermind of the rebellion, their new leader.

The fighters said their leader, known as "IB," would need to be included in any decision by rebel ministers to return to the coalition government, a move which is likely to undermine further a rocky peace deal in the world's top cocoa grower.

"All talks, all decisions between the New Forces and third parties cannot take place without the effective presence of Sergeant Ibrahim Coulibaly. As a result, any other decision is null and void," said a spokesman for the fighters called Bamba Kassoum, known as "Kass," in the rebel stronghold of Bouake.

While IB has long been suspected of being the behind-the-scenes backer of Ivory Coast's rebellion, he has never admitted to it. Guillaume Soro emerged as the rebels' political leader and former Ivorian officer Colonel Soumaila Bakayoko is currently the rebel chief of staff.

The statement read out by the spokesman said the insurgents supported Soro's efforts to find a solution to the West African country's crisis but made no mention of Bakayoko, the man who earlier this month signed an agreement paving the way for the eventual disarmament of rebel fighters.

Although Ivory Coast's war, which broke out in September 2002, has been declared over, the former French colony is still divided between a rebel-held north and government-controlled south. French and West African troops patrol a ceasefire line in the middle.

A January peace accord has stalled on mutual distrust, with rebels accusing President Laurent Gbagbo of trying to renege on the deal while he blamed them for dragging their heels on disarmament.

IB was among a group of suspected mercenaries detained in Paris in August on suspicion of plotting to kill Gbagbo. French judicial officials said then that some members of the group had admitted to being part of the plot.

However, IB, who had been implicated in plots against the Ivorian authorities since 1999, did not acknowledge the alleged plan. After three weeks in jail, he was released on bail.

The apparent split within rebel ranks came amid recent signs of divisions between the political and military wing of the rebellion.

"We, comrades in arms from before and now, and fighters for the New Forces, declare with our last breath that Major Ibrahim Coulibaly is, from this day, if he wasn't already, the president of the New Forces," said the statement being read by Kass.

"In due time, you will see the resources we have to make sure our concerns are taken into account," Kass told Reuters. "We don't like things to be vague because at the beginning we fixed clear objectives that nobody can go back on," he said.

When the rebels first emerged, they insisted that they would never give up their arms unless Gbagbo stepped down. Since then, they have modified that demand and briefly entered a power-sharing government with their arch-enemy before quitting again.

Copyright 2003 Reuters. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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